In May 2005, Jeanne Oleniczak received a package from her brother, Winfred Roy Compton II. In it was a diary written by Compton from 1970 to 1995 describing his life living as a homeless veteran, wandering through the streets of countless cities. With it was a note from her brother telling Oleniczak to do whatever she wanted with it.
A year later, Compton died from a massive coronary.
“I just kind of sat on it for awhile because it is such a powerful story,” Oleniczak, a Manistee resident, said. “When I tried reading it, I kept putting it down and walking away because he was talking about all that he went through.”
For his family, it was the story that filled in the missing decades … years they spent wondering where he was and how he was doing.
Then, in June 2010, while attending a concert with her husband, Oleniczak said she was overpowered by a sense that the time to tell her brother’s story had come.
“We went to go see Kelly Trudell here in Manistee and she was singing ‘Cold Sweat’ (a song about Vietnam), and at that moment – I’m not exaggerating – it was like my brother was standing behind me with his hands on my shoulders saying, ‘It’s time.’ “It just shook me to my core.” That Monday, Oleniczak called Jeannie Lewis, a woman she met at her grieving support group, who had connections to the publishing industry. Lewis read the manuscript, insisting Compton’s story be told.
The manuscript, titled “The Walking Wounded,” was registered with the Library of Congress and then published by Rocky Shore Books on Jan. 6, 2012 – what would have been Compton’s 66th birthday.
Compton’s story is unlike most veterans’ you would find on a bookshelf. While others talk about their experiences of war and its after-effects, from heroism to post traumatic stress, Compton unearths a fairly untold yet shockingly common predicament amongst veterans.
About a third of the homeless adult population has served in the armed forces, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. On any given night, around 67,000 veterans could be sleeping on the streets. Vietnam-era veterans account for 47% of those numbers.
While Compton always possessed a nomadic and curious spirit, Vietnam became a relentless ghost, chasing him around the country and into the bottom of the bottle.
“He told me about the time when he and a buddy were on guard duty and a young boy approached the compound,” Oleniczak recalls. “He told the kid to stop but he just kept coming. Winfred knew at that moment that (the boy) had a bomb. The friend said, ‘I can’t kill a kid.’ “At the time, Winfred had a son at home about the same age as this boy. When he looked through the site (of the gun), all he saw was his son; but he knew that if he didn’t shoot him, a lot of soldiers were going to die.”
Just as he was trained to do, Compton pulled the trigger.
“From that day forward, it haunted him,” she said.
Oleniczak partly blames herself for her brother’s descent into homelessness, recalling the time he moved in with her and her first husband upon his return from the war.
“One evening it was time for supper and I went to wake him on the couch. He flew off that couch and had me by the neck before I could react,” she recalled. “I’m staring into his eyes and he’s not there. He’s choking the life right out of me. He was doing it almost to the point where I passed out. Then the light finally came on and he immediately dropped me; and he screamed at me, ‘don’t ever touch me while I’m sleeping!’” The next morning, while on a trip into town with Oleniczak’s husband, Compton hopped aboard a bus and disappeared; and so started the vagabond lifestyle as well as the start of “The Walking Wounded.”
Upon his first few days of homelessness, Compton stumbled across a hobo camp in the woods of North Carolina, the place he learned much of his street smarts, living with men who went by names like Cookie, Popcorn, Bulldog, Swampy and Professor – all from various corners of the country, yet united by one commonality: each had fallen from grace. Alcoholism, family problems and trouble with the law made them outsiders to society.
“I lived like this for almost a year and a half, learning everything I could, getting my education (or so I called it). Then one day without a word to anyone, I packed up and left, as was the way with most of us when we got ready to move on,” Compton wrote.
From there he continued on to countless places, meeting faces in Florida, New Orleans, New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. These are the stories that comprised his 28 years of living on the streets, working various day labor jobs, panhandling and donating blood – his primary means of making money.
“He did whatever he could to survive day
to day,” said Oleniczak. “He took whatever job was offered – picking crops, cleaning buildings…they had wrecking crews, all kinds of stuff. Any job that you would not take, that’s what a day laborer would do.
“If he could get his hands on drugs and sell those, he would.”
HIGHS AND LOWS
The book recounts wild parties in Daytona Beach in the early ’70s to the time Compton almost died during a scuffle, the contents of his stomach spilling into his body cavity after being stabbed.
There were also gentler moments on the road, stories of hope and humanity, like the young woman Compton helped to get on her feet.
The pages also contain poetry as up and down as his stories.
One paragraph, written July 1997 reads, “My heart beats much slower now, And sleep is but a passing thing, It comes in measures of the night, And I don’t like what Daylight brings.”
Another, written April 1993, explores the concept of real happiness: “Sometimes it’s as fleeting as the wind, And others it’s a constant thing, But true happiness lies in one’s own heart, It matters how the pendulum swings.”
TO A WORTHY CAUSE
“The Walking Wounded” retails for $18.95 with all proceeds going directly to The Patriot Place, a transitional housing community for veterans based in Gaylord.
“As an Air Force veteran, I have tried to understand the many needs of our homeless veterans … we need to work together, stand together and start very soon in our county, state and country,” said John Stocki, board chairman of Rolling Thunder Inc., a nonprofit supporting veterans of all wars. “I believe that Goodwill’s Northern Michigan Veterans Transitional Housing Community is a definite step in the right direction in helping the many homeless veterans we have in Northern Michigan.”
The book is available to order through Rolling Thunder’s website, rollingthundermichigan1.com, along with information on programs and events geared towards supporting veterans.
The book is also available at Goodwill stores in Gaylord, Cadillac, Traverse City and Petoskey. Checks may be mailed directly to Jeanne Oleniczak at 1490 Princeton Rd., Manistee, MI 49660. Include $2.89 for shipping.